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Curriculum Vitae

Ed Cohn

Rosenfield Program


Edward Cohn is a scholar of Soviet and Eastern European history, with a specialty in the history of policing, surveillance, and the often-blurry line between public and private life in the Communist world. A 1999 graduate of Swarthmore College, he worked for a year as a political journalist and came to Grinnell in 2007 after finishing a PhD in Russian history at the University of Chicago. In July, he will also become director of the Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, International Relations, and Human Rights.

Professor Cohn’s courses at Grinnell include “The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union” and “From the KGB to the Elf on the Shelf: Surveillance in Modern History,” as well as a seminar on Stalinism, a section of the department’s intro class, and interdisciplinary first-year tutorials on topics like “The Life and Times of Nikita Khrushchev,” “The History of Reading,” and “The Liberal Arts as a Force for Evil.” He also helped design the department’s advanced tutorial on the modern classics of historical writing—an experimental class whose students meet with the professor in small groups for intensive discussions of major historical works. He has experimented with a new intro course called “How History Works,” in which students learn about the field’s methodologies through a series of six case studies. The class’s units include debates over whether the Roman emperor Caligula was mentally ill and an investigation of whether we can write “history” about subjects other than people, using academic articles on environmental history, medical history, and even the history of squirrels in American cities.

Professor Cohn’s research on the political and social history of the postwar USSR has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society, the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies, and the National Council of Eastern European and Eurasian Studies. His first book, The High Title of a Communist, analyzes the Soviet Communist Party’s system of internal discipline in the twenty years after World War II, focusing on investigations of corruption, war-time collaboration with the Nazis, drunkenness, and sexual misconduct among party members. The book shows that the postwar Soviet regime became less repressive, but more intrusive—launching invasive investigations of its members’ drinking habits and family lives in response to the instabilities created by World War II.

He is now completing a monograph entitled The Admonitory State: KGB Surveillance, Prophylactic Policing, and Political Control in the Late Soviet Union. This book, based on extensive archival research in the Baltic republics and Moldova, discusses the KGB’s efforts to fight dissent using a tactic known as “prophylaxis,” in which low-level offenders were not arrested or prosecuted, but “invited” to the offices of the secret police for supposedly informal “conversations” or “chats.” The Admonitory State argues that prophylaxis was not a simple form of coercion and intimidation (or a straightforward loosening of Stalinist repression), but a more systematic and theoretically sophisticated effort to manage anti-Soviet activity that anticipated later policing methods around the world. The very name “prophylaxis” has clear medical connotations, hinting at the way the KGB sought to prevent the spread of “unhealthy” political attitudes.

Professor Cohn is also co-chair of an American Historical Association working group on small liberal arts colleges, which seeks to build community among SLAC faculty while creating new venues for the discussion of pedagogical and curricular issues facing history departments like Grinnell’s. This working group grew out of an initiative Professor Cohn helped organize (with colleagues from several other liberal arts schools) called “The Future of History in the Liberal Arts,” which organized a 2019 workshop on history at SLACs, a series of 2021 AHA webinars, a pair of 2022 syllabus workshops, a 2024 AHA workshop on how to hold difficult conversations in the history classroom, and a wide range of AHA annual meeting sessions.

Education and Degrees

Ph.D. in Russian history at the University of Chicago

In the News

What 'The Americans' gets wrong about the Cold War 

Washington Post / March 28, 2018 

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